Don’t Flush an Energy Opportunity

Congress shouldn’t squander the opportunity to help Americans save water and reap energy savings, write Tom Kenworthy and Kari Manlove.

An unidentified news photographer videotapes touch-free, waterless urinals in the men's room at Plummer Park in West Hollywood, CA. As Congress develops an omnibus energy bill for later this year, it should include incentives for consumers, businesses, and water providers to conserve water and thereby reduce energy consumption. (AP/Nick Ut)
An unidentified news photographer videotapes touch-free, waterless urinals in the men's room at Plummer Park in West Hollywood, CA. As Congress develops an omnibus energy bill for later this year, it should include incentives for consumers, businesses, and water providers to conserve water and thereby reduce energy consumption. (AP/Nick Ut)

Congress now has several opportunities to further our understanding of the nexus between water and energy use and to promote water conservation efforts that can also achieve significant energy savings. A recently introduced energy and water bill combined with financial incentives in the omnibus energy bill due later this year could help the entire country enjoy the savings some states are already seeing from reductions in water use—with a potential for job creation through water-efficient home retrofits.

In California, Santa Clara County’s experience underscores this important but often overlooked link. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Santa Clara Valley Water District got serious about water conservation. The district, which serves some 1.8 million residents and includes Silicon Valley and the city of San Jose, developed programs that encouraged residents, businesses, industries, and agricultural producers to use water more efficiently.

The results have been impressive: a savings of 370,000 acre-feet of water in 13 years. (A typical household uses one acre-foot of water per year).

But perhaps even more significant have been the energy savings and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: 1.42 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and 335 million kg of carbon dioxide, which is equal to taking 72,000 cars off the road for a year.

“It has become increasingly clear that the water savings from water use efficiency programs results in significant energy savings and air quality benefits, including reductions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide,” wrote Santa Clara Valley Water District CEO Stanley M. Williams in his introduction to “From Watts to Water,” the district’s recent report on its water conservation and energy savings efforts.

The relationship between energy and water use is beginning to get more attention as U.S. policymakers grapple with measures to transition from heavy dependence on fossil fuels and to attack global climate change by capping carbon emissions.

In early March, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the Energy and Water Integration Act of 2009 sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The bill’s main emphasis is to study the impact of energy development on U.S. water resources, but it also calls on the Department of Energy to periodically assess the energy consumed in the delivery, treatment, and use of water.

In his testimony on the bill, Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter H. Gleick said: “Water use and energy use are closely linked: Energy production uses and pollutes water; water use requires significant amounts of energy. Moreover, the reality of climate change affects national policies in both areas. Limits to the availability of both energy and water are beginning to affect the other, and these limits have direct implications for U.S. economic and security interests. Yet energy and water issues are rarely integrated in policy.”

As it develops an omnibus energy bill for consideration later this year, Congress also has an opportunity to include financial incentives for consumers, businesses, and water providers to conserve water and thereby reduce energy consumption. Preliminary discussions are underway according to Senate staff.

The federal government already provides a wide array of tax credits for consumers for energy efficient home improvements including windows, doors, insulation, and water heaters. Credits are also available for renewable energy systems such as solar panels, wind systems, and geothermal heat pumps. Tax deductions are available to owners and designers of energy efficient commercial buildings.

No such program exists, however, for water conservation efforts, such as installing high-efficiency toilets, low-flow showerheads, and water-conserving clothes washers, though some water utilities provide consumers rebates for purchases of those items.

In Santa Clara County, for example, residents can get a $125 rebate for a high-efficiency toilet, up to $200 for water-efficient clothes washers, up to $1,000 for new landscape irrigation hardware, and up to $1,000 for replacing water-intensive landscaping such as turf grass with plants that use low amounts of water. The county’s Water Wise House Call Program provides experts to inspect homes and install new appliances and fixtures.

At every stage of its cycle, the water we use consumes energy. It takes power to move water, to treat it, to heat it in our homes so we can shower, and wash clothes and dishes, and then to treat our wastewater. According to the Department of Energy, residential water heating alone accounts for about 9 percent of residential electricity use in the United States and the distribution and treatment of water uses about 4 percent of total U.S. electricity use. In states like California, where water is moved over great distances, the energy embedded in water can be much higher. The California Energy Commission estimated in a 2005 report that “water-related energy uses annually account for roughly 20 percent of the state’s electricity consumption, one-third of nonpower plant natural gas consumption, and about 88 million gallons of diesel fuel consumption.”

In “Energy Down the Drain,” a 2004 study of the hidden costs of California’s water supply, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute found that the “end use of water—especially energy-intensive uses like washing clothes and taking showers—consumes more energy than any other part of the urban water conveyance and treatment cycle” and that “significant amounts of energy” can be saved through conservation. For example, one of their case studies found that if San Diego provided its next 100,000 acre feet of water through conservation instead of transporting it from northern California, the energy savings would be enough to supply 25 percent of San Diego households.

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that if just 1 percent of American homes replaced old toilets with water-saving ones, it would reduce energy consumption by 38 million kWh, enough to electrify 43,000 homes for a month. This of course translates into financial savings. Implementing just a few water efficiency measures could save up to $170 annually on water and sewage bills, which on average are about $500 annually for an American household. If each U.S. household had seven water-efficient appliances, it would save $18 billion annually, according to the EPA.

Dr. Gleick of the Pacific Institute came to a similar conclusion: “There are a lot of inexpensive investments that can save both water and energy, particularly in residential end use.”

Compared to more expensive energy-saving measures such as installing home solar panels or even adding home insulation, the initial cost of many water-saving measures can be relatively modest and the payback period relatively quick.

In its publication “Water Efficiency for the Home,” the Rocky Mountain Institute offers some examples: In 10 years, an efficient showerhead will return 10-40 times its cost in saved energy alone, and inexpensive replacement faucets can reduce indoor water use by 3-5 percent and pay for themselves in less than a year.

In 2006, the EPA launched its WaterSense Program, which is similar to the agency’s older Energy Star program and is designed to help consumers make smarter choices when purchasing products such as showerheads and toilets. Expanding the WaterSense labeling program to appliances such as clothes washers and dishwashers would make sense, as would a labeling system that tells consumers not just the direct energy used by those appliances but also the energy consumed by the water they use.

Mandatory federal water efficiency standards have also lagged behind energy standards. While standards were adopted in 1992 for toilets, showerheads, faucets, and urinals, it was not until 2007 that Congress required federal standards for clothes washers and dishwashers, and they will not go into effect until 2011 and 2010 respectively.

More aggressive federal steps to improve water efficiency have the potential to not only save energy but also provide a significant economic boost and create jobs. With the federal government now embarking on a $5 billion expansion of the home weatherization program that will send a small army of workers out to retrofit homes to achieve energy savings, it would be negligent to not retrofit those homes with more water-efficient appliances and fixtures.

Case in point: In a December 2008 study, the Alliance for Water Efficiency found that a $10 billion stimulus that focused on retrofitting homes with water-conserving appliances and fixtures, installing smart outdoor irrigation systems, and improving commercial and industrial water applications could create between 150,000 and 220,000 jobs and generate as much as $28 billion in economic output.

The $787 billion economic stimulus bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in February gives some recognition to the need for greater water efficiency. Of the $6 billion allocated for states’ revolving water funds, at least 20 percent must go to “projects that address green infrastructure, water or energy efficiency improvements, or other environmentally innovative activities.”

But because the legislation sets such tight time frames and gives states latitude in determining what is “green,” some states “are reinterpreting the existing projects on their lists as ‘green’ and not allowing new applications for funding,” says Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the Alliance. “It has been a big disappointment for us.”

Even if states are missing the boat, there’s still time for Congress to raise public awareness of the opportunities and create incentives that will promote both water and energy conservation.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Kari Manlove is a Research Fellow at CAP. The authors thank energy opportunity team intern Derrick Golla for his research assistance.

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Tom Kenworthy

Senior Fellow